Can You Grade Your Own Cards?
Card grading has completely changed the hobby in the last decade. While there have been some hiccups, a more standardized system has led to a more uniform and liquid market for cards.
Most newer collectors think that they need to send in all of their cards for grading to maximize value, but this isn’t necessarily always the case.
Collectors should certainly engage in self-grading their own cards. The more one can become educated in the process of how grading works, the better-equipped one will be to decide whether to spend the money for card grading.
And as more and more collectors become efficient in grading cards, the more accepted it might be to buy and sell ungraded (or raw) cards.
Unfortunately, despite becoming an efficient grader, an ungraded card still tends to sell for less than any card that has been graded by a third-party grading company such as PSA, SGC, or Beckett.
If you’re looking to expand your knowledge about card grading, understanding the various factors of how a card gets graded can be important to how you evaluate your own cards.
What Tools Do I Need To Grade A Card?
Simply put there are only a few key things needed to grade your own cards. One, is a simple jewelers loupe---you can buy one on eBay for less than $10. Second is a ruler. And third is a black light--used in order to evaluate authenticity or any sort of trimming/alterations.
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What Are The Key Determinants Of A Card's Grade?
I should note that we've provided a more comprehensive tutorial to card grading and this is more of a compendium to give someone a more concise guide to self-grading. However, these are the most important components of determining a card's grade:
1. Surface Wear
As far as surface is concerned, we are examining both the front and the back of the card to identify any sorts of scratching, scuffing, marks, stains, indentations or creases. Any sorts of surface wear will be lead to a reduction in the overall grade of the card. Any reduction in grade is dependent on the number of surface problems and the severity of any issues. For example, a card with a very light surface wrinkle would probably grade higher than a card with a massive stain on the card, all else equal.
2. Centering Issues
All of the grading companies have various forms of acceptance of off-centering for each numerical grade. For example, even a PSA 10 (Gem-Mint) card can be slightly off-center (55/45 to 60/40 percent on the front, 75/25 on back per PSA's grading definitions. Again, see our complete Sports Card Grading Resource for all of the formal centering requirements. Still, any card with centering issues outside of a normal range will have a lower grade--and if going by PSA standards, this would mean either an OC (off-center) qualifier or a 2 number reduction in the overall numerical grade.
3. Border Wear
Examination of a card's borders is a key to putting together a part of the grading puzzle. Look for any noticeable chipping (easier to tell on a card with non-white borders), indentations (maybe from a rubber band) or just overall wear from age. Any deviations from a normal border will lead to a deduction in grade.
4. Corner Wear
If we assume that a card starts with four sharp corners, anything outside of that will lead to a deduction in overall grade. The severity of the corner wear will determine how far a card should fall in terms of grade. Often times, pulling up various graded copies of a card you might be examining can help in visualizing what different numerical grades should look like.
This is certainly the more advanced part of grading for any more novice collectors but we must certainly attempt to try and evaluate any card for potential alterations.
The more common types of alterations include color touchups (think black marker on a 1971 Topps card), trimming, bleaching (to brighten or whiten a card) or rebuilding card stock among others.
A black light can help with many of these problems, as can a ruler (in the case of trimming). A loupe can also detect doctoring done to remove creases.
I always say that the best resource for evaluating any altered (or potential fake card) are other common cards from the same set you are examining.
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Inspecting a Card To Evaluate The Grade
Each collector will come up with their own process for examining a card, but for me it involves an examination of the entire card front and back. I carefully inspect the borders, the edges and the surface of the card.
This usually involves rotating the card into different positions under a strong light. Sometimes one angle doesn't work all that well, but you'll usually find a position in which you are able to get a better view of the card.
I also like to measure the card with a ruler (especially if I detect trimming). Take measurements of the card from left to right and top to bottom. You can then compare your measurement to the exact factory dimensions of the card (note oldcardboard.com is a great resource for set details with the factory length and width of a set).
The light is also important to be able to identify any sort of light surface wrinkles or creasing. More noticeable creases can usually be picked up without a strong light, but it is under light where you will usually see any more subtle flaws in the card.
With your jeweler's loupe and under the light carefully inspect the entire card, looking for any sorts of potential alterations or other card damage that may have been missed in your examination under light.
Keep a running tally of your findings. Here's a 68 Topps Nolan Ryan Rookie card.
Here's what my grading evaluation looked like
Borders - Fairly clean, but decent wear consistent with the age of the card
Surface - Some marking and paper loss (see mark in middle on Koosman side)
Centering - Slightly off-center left to right, but within the guidelines of PSA's top rated cards
Corners - Fairly significant corner wear
I might decide that the card earns a 5 out of 10 for borders, a 2 out of 10 for Surface (paper loss is a major detractor in card grading), a 9 for Centering, and a 4 for Corners...resulting in an average of 5.
Now of course, grading is quite subjective and not (yet) a science, so it is quite possible that if you sent in this card for grading it might earn a lower grade. And in fact when I graded this card, I only graded it as a 2 (or Good) due to the paper loss. Not many cards with paper loss will ever see a grade higher than 'Good'.
After a while, as you've examined more and more cards, the better at this you will become and grading almost becomes second nature. All of this can become invaluable knowledge, especially when you are considering which of your cards are worthy of submitting to a grading company.
If you have any questions relating to grading, please shoot us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org